Back To School: A Freshman Paper On Harvard Square Haberdashers

andover ties

In the spirit of all the students presently packing up for their first semester at college, Ivy Style has the pleasure of presenting a piece of student homework. I say pleasure because getting to write about The Andover Shop and J. Press is certainly a lot more fun than having to take a remedial math course. The paper below was written by Alberto Castiel III, who runs the website Regattas And Repp Ties, for a required freshman composition course at Boston University. I trust he got an A. — CC

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Timeless: The Last Men’s Haberdasheries of Harvard Square
By Alberto Castiel

The Purveyors of “The Look”

Cambridge, MA has long been a center of culture, intellectualism, and music. Home to some of the world’s most prestigious universities, it was only natural that the area would become a mecca for men’s clothing as well. Originating in England’s public schools, what we refer to as today traditional men’s style migrated over the pond as families moved to America and enrolled their children in schools such as Andover, Exeter, and the like.

As these institutions were feeder schools for Harvard and Yale, it was only natural that the style would become popular on college campuses. By the 1950s, the so-called “Ivy League look” exploded, with every one from TV personalities to suburban teenagers dressing in this manner.

In order to accommodate the popularity of this style, men’s stores started to arrange their stores to appeal to a student, faculty, and alumni clientele, selling the new style of clothing, which eventually became timeless.

Yet, as the 1960s came to a close and many students began to dress more causally, the stores began to disappear.

The last two of these stores that remain from the heyday, The Andover Shop and J. Press, still retain a very loyal customer base while selling the same “look” that they always have. The Andover Shop’s owner said, “when I first came to Harvard Square [in 1953], there were 10 good men’s stores, and we all had to divide that clientele up between us. Today there are only two here: me and J. Press. So you can take that “big pie” and cut it in 10, or take a small pie, and cut it in two.”

In a time where trends quickly come and go, and brands change their image like people change their socks, The Andover Shop and J. Press stay true to their roots, and do what they do best—keeping the tradition of the “Ivy League look”.

The History Behind the Haberdasheries

Even as the years have advanced, tradition has been the driving force for these businesses’ success. Within the menswear community, these stores are renowned for their high quality products and adherence to classic men’s style, regardless of the trends of the day. While observing The Andover Shop one afternoon, I noticed a young Harvard student clad in “Harvard Athletics” sweatpants and beat-up boat shoes being fitted for a made-to-measure sport jacket by salesman Larry Mahoney.

While helping the student pick out the fabric for his sport jacket, Larry recalled the student’s father’s tailoring preferences, a testament to the store’s very personal customer service.

Collectively, The Andover Shop and J. Press actively serve three generations of customers; a college freshman in 2014 is able to buy his first suit at the same store (and in one case from the same salesman) as his grandfather did his freshman year. The man who continues to serve all three generations to this day, The Andover Shop’s Charlie Davidson, has seen it all. Eighty-nine year old Charlie has been working at his shop in Harvard Square since he first opened its doors in 1953. It still stands in the same location to this day. A native of Andover, MA, Charlie attended the prestigious Philips Academy Andover for a brief time. After dropping out of school, enlisting and fighting during World War II, and briefly attending Bowdoin College, he opened his first store in his hometown in 1948.

After leaving the store in Andover to his relatives to run, his store in Cambridge quickly became very popular with students and professors from the Boston area. Jazz musicians of the era passing through heard of Charlie’s store and came to him to get their clothing made.

Similarly, at J. Press, former manager Denis Black also has strong ties to Harvard Square and the menswear industry. Denis’ father was the manager of Brooks Brothers on Newbury Street. As a teenager during the mid-1960s, he began working at the long-gone Sak’s 5th Ave. University Shop in Harvard Square, a few feet from the Andover Shop.

The University Shop was a branch of Sak’s that catered to college students, providing clothing affordable to students in popular styles of the era. It was during this time that Denis met Charlie Davidson.

In 1977, he started working at J. Press and has been there since.

Press was a family-owned business started in New Haven, CT in 1902 by Jacobi Press.

Like the Cambridge location with Harvard students, Yale students and faculty went to J. Press for their clothing during the reign of traditional men’s style. In Addition to the Cambridge location, J. Press operates stores in New Haven, CT, New York City, and Washington DC. The ivy-covered brick building in which the Cambridge location is housed has been standing next to some of Harvard’s Final Clubs since the 1930s.

In stark contrast to The Andover Shop, the large Japanese company Onward Kashiyama purchased J. Press in 1986, which greatly popularized the brand in Japan.

Even though J. Press sells a very traditional, conservative look in America, a slimmer, trendier version of the product is widely available in malls throughout Japan.

Despite their large commercial presence in Japan, the US locations retain a more intimate, “custom shop” feel (in addition to the J. Press in Cambridge, I have been to the NYC and Washington, DC stores).

One of a Kind

In my research, I looked to find out what made these stores thrive throughout the decades, and how they differ from each other. As I am very passionate about clothing, I naturally chose a subject that would adequately capture my passion. I wanted to document how far the clothing industry has come from the golden age of traditional men’s style, the 1950s and 1960s, and give readers a glimpse of the last vestiges of what the industry once was. Additionally, I had some assumptions about the stores that I wanted to test. My assumptions for these institutions are as follows: As both of these stores cater to a very specialized customer base of students, faculty, and other industry professionals, I assume that they face a substantial amount of competition from major retailers (Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Banana Republic, etc.). Building on my previous assumption, I also expect that the demographic that the stores serve is very limited to affluent, older white males and the occasional prep school or college student. As more modern fashions of slim, European cuts are dominating the menswear scene at the moment, it appears as though these stores’ peak has passed. The 1950s, 60s, and 80s were probably the busiest times for these stores. I assume that the stores’ products stay the same regardless of modern trends. In order to confirm or refute my assumptions, I spent several hours in both shops observing, interviewing, and participating as a customer. In addition to interviewing Denis and Charlie, I interviewed my 21-year old friend Nathan King, who has been working at the Andover Shop for three years, since his freshman year at Boston College. His father was a customer of Charlie’s during his college years, making a strong family connection between Nathan and the shop. I also interviewed Larry Mahoney, who has been working with Charlie at The Andover Shop for the past 25 years, and Tim Walsh, a salesman at J. Press who has been there for about 7 years.

Service the Way It Should Be:

Every time I entered the stores to observe, I was amazed by the amount of attention that was spent on each customer. One Saturday at The Andover Shop, the tiny store was so packed with customers it was difficult to move around. Regardless, Charlie, Nathan, and Jeff (another salesman) attended to every customer and made sure that all of their needs were met: As Jeff was ringing up a line of customers that almost stretched to the front door and Nathan was helping several customers pick out shirts at once, Charlie was happy to indulge my curiosity during this hectic scene: “Can I see some grey flannel pants in a 30?” I asked, even though at $195 they were way outside of my price range. “Sure,” responded Charlie, as he rifled through a pile of pants in a corner of the store that was almost as tall as he was. I tried them on. Alas, they were a bit tight, but the cut and fabric quality were impeccable. Giving the pants back to Charlie, I said, “I’m afraid they’re a bit tight.” “No problem,” he said. He then pointed to the inside of the pants, showing me the seams in the inside. “We can take out a few inches here, see?” “That would be great, but unfortunately they’re a little outside of my college budget,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll pick them up in the future.” “It’s no problem at all,” smiled Charlie, as he playfully punched me on the arm.

Regardless of the fact that I might have wasted 10 minutes of his life trying something on that I was not going to buy, he was still happy to educate me and help me out.

Acting like close relatives or friends, the guys at The Andover Shop provide service that goes above and beyond the norm. This helps business and forms life-long customer-salesman relationships. For the extra cost of higher quality clothing, most of which is made in America and England, the advice and service you receive is an added bonus. The clothing lasts years, even decades after being purchased, as opposed to several months. For example, the pants that I purchased from J. Press almost three years ago still look brand new, while a pair of khakis I bought from Banana Republic almost a year ago currently looks very worn and ragged.

When asking Nathan about what makes a customer so loyal to The Andover Shop, he responded, “The amount of individual attention a customer gets, and we try our best to fit the customer with whatever garments are right for him, not what we want to sell him or get rid of. A lot of that is reflected in our made-to-measure business, because the customer gets to choose his fabric. It’s more a matter of what he wants and what we have in stock. He really has a lot of things to choose from.”

Both J. Press and The Andover Shop have Made-to Measure programs, where a customer can have a suit, sport jacket, or even a pair of pants made by selecting their fabric, being fitted, and having the garment made to their exact specifications with one-on-one attention from a salesperson. Unlike larger retailers today, these stores give you the feeling that you are an individual with a name and specific clothing preferences instead of just another random person coming in to buy a tie or shirt.

While the interview process at The Andover Shop was extremely laid back, I noticed a substantial difference when discussing work or the business in general at J. Press. Even though I am still treated with great service and kindness every time I am there, there seems to be an air of corporate influence looming overhead.

When interviewing Denis (when he still worked at J. Press), he had to simultaneously fill out reports to send to corporate to deal with a “management crisis” that was currently taking place.

When asking him to elaborate on the issue, he politely declined and stated that company policy forbid him from doing so. When I asked him about the amount of items sold per day and number of customers that come into the shop on a daily basis, I received the same response.

Denis’ answers to my questions were elaborate, but at the same time very careful not to disagree with his company or any of the products they produce. When asked about how the older customers with more conservative tastes are reacting to the trendier, more fashion-forward clothing being pushed forward by J. Press in Japan, Denis replied with this:  “You know, people go through phases in their life, and some people never go through phases in their life. Some people rely on J. Press for tradition. They want to wear what their grandfather wore, within reason. Other people have gone through trends and come back because they discover that trends are so confusing and so fleeting, and it kind of complicates their life to keep up on what the latest trend is, and they reach a stage in their life where they just want to be comfortable and assured with what they buy and what they wear. That’s what J. Press does very well. They want the assurance that what they’re wearing is correct, and that they don’t need to look at another person to worry about what they’re wearing—whether it’s ‘in’ or ‘out’. J. Press is always ‘in’.”

While he answered the question in a detailed manner, he was careful not to say anything that would discredit the brand at all. Conversely, the other day Larry told me to buy pink shirts at Brooks Brothers because The Andover Shop’s weren’t the right shade of pink.

It seems as though J. Press strives to retain the “mom and pop” image they always had, even when owned by a large international parent corporation.

Putting It All Together

Before asking everyone else questions, I first had to ask something of myself: Am I an insider or an outsider? My answer was, I’m a little bit of both. Like Charlie, I developed a passion for clothing and dressing well during prep school surrounded by students in oxford shirts, ties, khakis, loafers, and the like.

However, I am originally from the South, not New England (even though I was raised like a New Yorker by my Manhattanite parents). I also fit into the insider category as a customer of both The Andover Shop and J. Press, with the employees knowing me by name, and vice versa. Originally wanting to satisfy my curiosity about some stores I had read about on various men’s style blogs, I began to get closer and more comfortable with the salespeople the more times I visited the stores. Over time, I became a part of the loyal customer base that J. Press and The Andover Shop have been serving for over fifty years.

Upon further examination of the businesses, I found some trends: When asked about when business was the busiest for him, Charlie Davidson said, “I’ve had all these years here; I’ve had three generations of customers. So I’d say these are the boom years for me.”

Similarly, Denis Black stated, “we have a lot of brand loyalty from generations.”

Yet, even though the brands are at a high point in business (or at least The Andover Shop is), there is still a difference in the customer base. Larry Mahoney had this to say when asked if the customer base has grown or gotten smaller: “A little bit of both. The student clientele has dropped off to some degree, with the exception of interview suits, tuxedos, the random tie, sweater, shirt or accessory.  On the other hand, once they graduate, they often return and buy made-to-measure suits and off-the-rack suits in considerable numbers.”

Therefore, what is lacking in the student clientele of yesteryear is more than being made up for with the increase in alumni and professionals buying the clothing. Additionally, both stores also have very loyal customers that have been acquired over the decades due to family referrals, some of which who “have been shopping here since they were children”, according to Denis Black.

As Charlie Davidson put it, “The golden age had more of the type of customer that we deal with than we do today, but on the other end, there were more stores fighting for their business.”

As described earlier, the interviews at The Andover Shop were fairly casual. Instead of arranging specific interview times, I simply walked into the store on various occasions and asked the employees if I could ask questions/record them for a paper I was writing. They dropped what they were doing in order to help me out. As Charlie at The Andover Shop owns his business and essentially is “corporate”, the interview felt a lot more comfortable and unpressured. I felt I could ask Charlie anything, and he welcomed me to come back and see him at any time if I needed to ask him anything else. Yet, I had to schedule an interview with Denis that felt far more formal, and even then, I felt as if I was being pressured to hurry through it. By my numerous formal (interviews) and informal (stopping by to say hello to Charlie on a random weekend) interactions, I realized that I was actually a part of the subculture I was documenting. Being a customer and someone who really appreciates what these people do, I directly contribute to their businesses and popularity. I also learned how much of a role being under the watch of a big corporation affects your behavior or day-to-day life. It’s essentially the same as being owned by someone else.

More Than Just a Salesman

At The Andover Shop in Harvard Square, Charlie Davidson is the very definition of a public character. He is always eager to share a story, tell a joke, or give style advice. Walking into the shop one afternoon with a friend of mine several months ago, Charlie shared stories with us about his friendships with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, asked me about my favorite jazz drummers after telling him I was a drummer myself, and told my friend and I that we were the “hope for our generation.”

On another occasion, he told me about his children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. His eyes lit up with excitement as he talked, deliberately ignoring the phone ringing in the background to continue talking with me.

It was at that moment that I realized that I was an insider. Charlie felt comfortable enough to tell me about his personal life. Thus, I felt that I had gained his trust and acceptance. Not only is Charlie a great salesman with an impeccable eye for taste, but an all-around fascinating person to talk to. I cannot begin to describe how much I have learned from him in the two years that I have known him.

Upon embarking on this ethnography project, I thought that I had everything figured out about my subjects before I had even asked them a single question. Instead, I was fascinated to learn so much about these two small shops in Harvard Square that seem to be frozen in time, practically uninfluenced by the rapidly changing world around them. The areas of Mt. Auburn Street and Holyoke Street that these stores occupy are like their own world, happy to let in anyone who is curious or passionate enough, and willing to explore them. — ALBERTO CASTIEL III

15 Comments on "Back To School: A Freshman Paper On Harvard Square Haberdashers"

  1. Steedappeal | August 19, 2015 at 7:23 pm |

    This is thoughtfully written. Only topic missing is a mention of each,respective store’s “House” style: 2 button, undarted Andover vs. rolled 3 button, undarted Press.

  2. Really great content. The grammarian in my head writhed in pain. Blue pencil anyone?

  3. Richard Press | August 19, 2015 at 8:48 pm |

    Indeed top grade Mr. Castiel.

  4. Ward Wickers | August 20, 2015 at 7:40 am |

    Terrific piece. I especially like how you recognized that you were both observer and participant, and how the experience changed you a bit. It’s also worth noting how the experience brought you beyond clothing, especially seeing first-hand how a corporation can so influence individual behavior. You had a chance to see this on a small scale as a contrast between two retail shops, but it plays out every day across the global working world. I would imagine you may have reason to reflect on this in the future, as a professional, and how you first saw this while observing J Press and Andover. Very valuable.

  5. I don’t know, I went into the Andover Shop in Cambridge maybe ten years or so ago and could not believe how rude that guy Charlie was. I never went back.

  6. Wright Hall | August 20, 2015 at 12:04 pm |

    catch the dangling participle

  7. NaturalShoulder | August 20, 2015 at 1:32 pm |

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article and do hope it earns him a high grade.

  8. The notion that English families brought traditional men’s style to America as they migrated “across the pond” and enrolled their children at Andover, Exeter and other boarding schools is absurd. Most English settlers arrived in America in the 17th century, long before these schools were established. Many of the famous New England boarding schools were founded in the 19th century by American Anglophiles (i.e., Endicott Peabody of Groton) who copied the traditions of England’s great public schools, thus transmitting some elements of English style and dress to future generations who eventually adapted them to something uniquely American–what we now call Ivy style.

  9. A store in Cambridge that I have occasionally passed by is Drinkwater’s on Mass. Ave. north of Porter Square. It looks interesting, but I have never had the time to go in when I was in the area, and I am very seldom in the area. Does anyone have any knowledge of the store? Is it worth shopping at?

  10. William Richardson | August 20, 2015 at 3:54 pm |

    Would anybody out there know where I could acquire wash and wear sack suits with 3/2 roll, natural shoulder, undarted, unlined, flat front trousers, preferably with a hook vent. Back in the ’80s I had tan, navy and olive drab suits of this description. I believe they were Dacron and would wrinkle in a crisp way, if that makes any sense. The nature of my business is changing and khakis and oxford shirt doesn’t cut it anymore.

    Will

  11. Charlottesville | August 20, 2015 at 5:02 pm |

    Will – O’Connell’s and J. Press should both have what you looking for in poplin suits, although I’m not sure they are actually wash & wear. I have the J. Press version in pale olive from a few years ago and it is quite good. Today I’m wearing a tan poplin 3/2 sack suit that I bought at Brooks in the late ’80s or early ’90s, but alas it is no longer available, unless you happen to find one in a thrift store. Good luck in your suit search and in your business.

  12. William Richardson | August 20, 2015 at 5:18 pm |

    I have been on their websites and the suits look good. I may have to settle for poplin. The only luck I have at thrift stores is in the Harris Tweeds. $3 for a perfect sport coat with all the features I mentioned in the previous post. I just have to wait for January to wear it since I live at the beach. Thanks for the advice.

    Will

  13. Ward Wickers | August 20, 2015 at 7:58 pm |

    Will

    I would also recommend J Press’s poplin suit–tan or olive. I have one and it’s excellent. They are currently on sale, as well.

  14. Thanks to everyone for the responses to my paper. I’m happy it was able to have a life outside of the classroom for others to read and enjoy, after being confined to the inner depths of my laptop for years (I’m currently a Junior at University). @NaturalShoulder I’m glad to report that I received an A.

  15. G. Bruce Boyer | August 21, 2015 at 10:52 am |

    Any story about Charlie Davidson is bound to be a good story, but this one is written with both great objectivity and great sensitivity.Charlie is irrepressible and one of the most important clothiers in the second half of the 20th Century. Someone should do a biography.

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